Starting a nutrient film technique (NFT) hydroponic setup can be quite a challenge for any grower trying to grow commercially. The key question is whether you should grow horizontally or vertically. Well, it is (almost) all a question of space!
Horizontal NFT systems are best suited for larger spaces and for maximizing the growth of the plants. This should be preferred if space allows. Vertical NFT systems are best suited for smaller spaces and faster yields as they limit the maximum growth of the plant.
When choosing the NFT system orientation, space is a key factor in deciding, but what about the accessibility of the plant? Do you know that one of them is prone to break more often? Yes, let’s dive in!
The nutrient film technique (NFT) in hydroponics is one of the six main types of hydroponics techniques. It has reached mainstream popularity because it’s often considered the most efficient technique out there.
The principle behind NFTs is simple. Net pots are lined on an inclined grow channel. The roots receive a continuous flow of a thin stream of nutrient rich solution carried by those channels.
Here is a list of pros and cons of the NFT hydroponic system.
- Less water and nutrient consumption than other methods.
- Capable of being a soil-free system that allows easy inspection of the root systems.
- The roots receive their needed nutrients without suffering the problems of a lack of aeration.
- NFTs are capable of being completely medium free which allows the roots to be easily inspected.
- Roots are exposed to oxygen-rich conditions and are unlikely to experience root rot or water-based diseases since the roots are only partially exposed to the stream.
- Pumps run for 24/7 which means pump failures can be risky.
- Not well adapted to plants which have large and voluminous root systems.
- It is susceptible to temperature fluctuations given that the streaming water will change temperature upon travelling the length of the channel.
Apart from the generalized pros and cons of an NFT system, horizontal and Vertical NFT systems have their own respective pros and cons. Knowing their strengths, weaknesses, and use cases can be a deciding factor in choosing which set up is best for a grower.
Horizontal NFT is the basic form of the nutrient film technique. It involves nothing more than inclined grow channels which receive a continuous stream of nutrient rich solution which is absorbed by the exposed root system of the plants. The solution is recirculated into the system and the process repeats all over again.
- Arguably easier to maintain because there are less parts in a system.
- Simpler and easier to set up.
- Allows for larger plants to be supported due to less weight being borne by the system
- Even lighting conditions for all plants grown
- Consumes significantly more space
- Not as high yield as vertical NFT systems
- Harvesting is more difficult especially for net pots in the middle of the rows of channels
Vertical NFTs systems are basically horizontal NFT systems stacked on top of each other where the channels are interconnected to one another. The stream from one channel flows downward to the channel beneath it and so on. At the last level, the stream is then recirculated.
- More compact and more space efficient since grow channels can be stacked on top of each other
- Allows for greater yield since plants are not allowed to grow larger unlike in horizontal NFTs.
- Harvesting is easier to do since the plants are more easily accessible.
- Requires a more powerful pump to make sure the nutrient-rich solution can reach a certain level
- More difficult to set up however pre-made setups alleviate this issue
- Uneven lighting conditions especially for plants at the bottom row which may necessitate the implementation of grow lamps.
- It cannot allow plants to grow larger than what the system can reasonably bear.
6 Factors to Consider When Choosing Between Horizontal and Vertical NFT
Despite their differing pros and cons, the efficacy of either system ultimately depends on the implementation. There are several factors which should be considered when creating or maintaining one.
First and foremost, the choice between a horizontal or a vertical HFT system mostly depends on the question of space. How much do you have and how much are you willing to utilize?
For obvious reasons and an equal amount of plants are grown, a horizontal NFT will necessarily consume more space than a vertical one since you can have more lines of growing plants per square meter of space.
To make the best use of either horizontal or vertical NFT systems, it is important to evaluate the available space properly is key.
Again, this is a factor that depends on the context of the grower. All things being equal, either NFT systems may be more expensive than the other. Depending on how large or complex the set up, more materials or better materials are required to keep the system running.
The size of the NFT system will drive the use of more or less materials so leading to higher/lower cost. Ideally a hydroponic grower should start with a small system and then expand. Indeed, NFT systems, if planned properly, are modular. This is ideal to 1) test the system 2) learn from it 3) expand once budget and experience are not a problem.
The plants grown are an important consideration in NFT systems. NFTs are optimized for fast growing plants with small root systems which can easily fit in a small net pot.
As a general rule, leafy green plants are best for NFT systems because they grow fast, grow moderately sized, and their root systems are manageable.
Lighting is necessary to ensure continuous and optimal growth of plants. Lighting can be either natural or artificial.
Natural lighting is more apt for horizontal NFT systems whereas artificial lighting is a necessity in vertical NFT systems because the distribution of light will be uneven for plants on lower levels.
A little known consideration in hydroponics is the weight of the system. The larger the system means more materials incorporated in its construction which equates to more weight.
The issue of weight is further exacerbated when taking into account the weight of the growing medium (if there be any), the weight of the plants, and the water running in the channels.
As a general rule, the flow rate of every channel should be 1-2 liters per minute. To maintain this optimal flow rate, strong and reliable water pumps are necessary.
The water pump’s power is a greater necessity in vertical NFT systems because they should be strong enough to pump the water upwards depending on what height the highest channel is positioned.
Vertical Towers are becoming very popular in recent years due to their promise of high yield all while being space efficient.
Vertical Towers are cylindrical columns stacked on top of each other. Growing containers where the plants are situated protrude from the tower’s cylindrical surface. The water distribution is handled by the inside of the tower whereby the nutrient-rich solution is delivered to the top of the tower. The solution is dispersed from the top of the tower and effectively “rains” the roots of the plants which are laid in a 45 degree angle.
Though an exciting and futuristic prospect for hydroponics, the efficacy of vertical towers are subject to debate. Studies vary on its effectiveness compared to conventional hydroponics techniques.
In general, studies state that vertical towers do present some promise for creating a high yield, high space efficient hydroponics system. However, what these studies fail to take into account are realities of harvesting and replanting which negatively affect efficiency and yield.
The biggest con of a vertical tower is the difficulty of harvesting and replanting. This takes more time and effort on workers due to the height of these towers. The fact that the growing containers are lined around the circumference of the tower further exacerbates the issue.
An actual hydroponics farm conducted a study that showed that horizontal NFT systems contained 4000 more plants than a vertical tower. Vertical towers showed to be less profitable due to this.
- NFT systems are a fantastic choice for cultivating fast growing plants.
- Horizontal and vertical NFT systems have their respective pros and cons. Their desirability is the context of the grower’s condition.
- Vertical Tower systems have varying results hence their efficacy is still debated on.
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- “7 Proven Tips For NFT Growers!” by Keith in GroWell
- “Going Vertical to Increase Yields?” by Joe Schwartz in AMHYDRO
- “Horizontal and vertical hydroponic systems for strawberry production at high densities” by Arias et al in Acta Horticulturae 1227(1227):331-338
- “HYDROPONICS EPISODE 1: Vertical A-Frame NFT System | Greengold Farms” by
- “Vertical farming increases lettuce yield per unit area compared to conventional horizontal hydroponics” by Touliatos et al in Food and Energy Security
- “The vertical farm: controlled environment agriculture carried out in tall buildings would create greater food safety and security for large urban populations” by Dickson Despommier in Journal für Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit volume 6, pages233–236 (2011)
- “Understanding and Using NFT Hydroponic Systems’ by Lynette Morgan by Maximum Yield